Research at Boston University

Preserving a Shared History

by Lauren Eckenroth

Diana Wylie’s interest in historic preservation is rooted in her childhood. The professor of history grew up in a beautiful New England village—the type of place you would want to save, were it threatened with destruction. It was this setting that sparked her love of public space. “A beautiful space that is connected to the past can make you feel happy and rooted,” she says.

Wylie is drawing on that connection in her latest project, a study of historic preservation in three cities in Morocco: Meknès, Tangier, and Casablanca. Wylie has spent the last 40 years living between New England and various parts of Africa, many of which are still struggling to come to terms with their colonial past. This history was once thought of strictly as “a blight on the potential of African people,” Wylie says, but as time has gone on, historians and Africans alike have been “reassessing colonialism, and in addition, reassessing what the buildings that were left behind by past rulers look like, mean, and what their fate should be.”

For Wylie, who began tracking this shift in attitudes in Algeria, the preservation of public buildings can be a way of looking at the history of these places in a new light. It can help get away from the old-fashioned, blunt paradigms of analysis that are strictly anticolonial and into a new way of thinking about “shared heritage,” that is, what is shared by cultures that were local and those that came from Turkey, Spain, France, and Arabia. What she found in Algeria was a desire to celebrate and preserve that shared heritage. Many Algerians, she says, “don’t want to be isolated in so-called ethnic, religious, national purity. They want to say ‘We belong to the rest of the world, and let’s celebrate that by preserving these beautiful buildings.’”

Now that she is expanding her study and shifting her focus to Morocco, she has chosen these three cities to reflect the many phases of the country’s history, from the precolonial period to independence. Meknès, a seventeenth-century city built by a pirate sultan to advertise his wealth and influence, became an imperial capital to rival its European counterparts. Casablanca, the modern economic and intellectual center, showcases structures built by French colonialists during the protectorate period from 1912 to 1956 as well as more modern, post-independence architecture. Tangier, a city Professor Wylie studied extensively when she wrote its history in her 2010 book, Enchantment, was the North African base of many colonial powers, including Portugal, Britain, and Spain. The city then became an international zone from 1923 to 1956, receiving an influx of expatriate artists and bohemians.

With the aid of a Fulbright grant, Wylie traveled to Morocco this fall to conduct her study. She spent several months in each city, speaking to everyone from architects to politicians and residents. In Casablanca she worked with Casamémoire, a grassroots preservation group founded by local architects who are working to maintain the city’s historic buildings. Listening closely to what the inhabitants of each city find meaningful and beautiful, Wylie is searching for what the French call the repères—the physical markers, or points of reference, that people choose as important to them—those places that can shape our sense of a shared past.

This focus on the population—the buildings that they love, hate, or neglect—and how they feel about their own past, as well as what they are doing in practical terms to preserve it, is the key for Wylie. It is a way to get at what the past means to ordinary people, how the buildings that surround them embody parts of local history and shape their daily lives. Wylie asserts that the beauty of the built environment is not irrelevant to individual and social health and a sense of well-being. The buildings that we pass every day instill a sense of pride, belonging, and citizenship.

Although Wylie has focused on the history of southern Africa for most of her career, her shift north has personal roots. In the mid-1970s she taught at the University of Oran in Algeria. The experience led to a lifelong attachment to North Africa that she has not yet fully plumbed as a scholar. She sees this project in Morocco as the capstone to her career as a historian. The move north, she says, is a bit eccentric—but it is important. “We seem to be living in an era when many people are reaching out to embrace the Other, which is maybe not surprising since it’s also a time of heightened conflict, but I think if I could highlight the métissage, or the mixture, it might help defuse some of the tensions that are growing these days.”

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